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The Role of Archaeology in Halachic Decision Making - Part 1

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Feb 19, 2005


A very exciting and relatively new area of Halachic concern is the potential impact of archaeological discoveries upon Halachic decision-making. The areas of potential impact include proper positioning of Mezuzot, Mikveh construction, identification of Techeilet, proper time of Megillah reading, and the weight of coins used for Pidyon HaBen. We will discuss whether Halacha accords credibility to archaeological discoveries and conclusions. These essays are based largely on an essay on this topic written by Rav Yonatan Adler that appears in the current issue of Techumin. My consultations with Mr. Steven Pickman, an Orthodox Jew who has completed an undergraduate degree in archaeology and is pursuing graduate studies in archaeological and objects conservation, have enriched my grasp of this topic and have considerably improved the quality of this presentation. The comments made by members of Congregation Rinat Yisrael of Teaneck, before whom I delivered a Shiur on this topic, have also enriched this article.

Three Classic Discussions

There are three classic cases in the Gemara and Rishonim where the question of the Halachic utility of archaeological discoveries arises. First, the Gemara (Bava Batra 73b-74a) relates that Rabbah bar bar Channah was once traveling in the desert guided by an Arab. The Arab directed him to the graves of the Dor HaMidbar. Rabbah bar bar Channah sought to remove the Tzitzit from one of the bodies in order to bring it to the Beit Midrash to be scrutinized by the Chachamim, but his efforts failed. When he returned, his rabbinical colleagues chided him, saying that if his intention was to determine whether the Halacha follows Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel regarding the number of strings one places on the Tzitzit, he merely had to look at the Tzitzit and report about the findings to the Chachamim instead of trying to remove a sample.

Rav Hershel Schachter (Nefesh HaRav p.53 footnote 26) observes that the fact that the rabbis were open to considering the Tzitzit of the Dor HaMidbar as a factor in deciding whether to rule in accordance with Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel seems to prove that the Halacha does consider archaeological evidence in rendering Halachic decisions. On the other hand, Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Taamah Dikra, Parashat Shelach) and Rav Shlomo Aviner (Iturei Kohanim 174:34) conclude that Rabbah bar bar Channah’s failure to derive Halachic conclusions from his discovery indicates that Hashem does not want us to draw Halachic conclusions from discoveries of the past.

The latter approach seems to contradict the celebrated principle of “Lo Bashamayim Hi” (“it is not in heaven”), that post-Matan Torah heavenly decrees play no role in Halachic decision-making (see Bava Metzia 59b). One may respond that the Gemara in Bava Metzia 59b merely teaches that heavenly decrees declaring Divine agreement with a specific rabbinic opinion are discounted by Halachic decisors. However, Rav Yehuda Shaviv (editor’s note to Techumin 24:496) suggests that the Halacha might consider general principles and rules that are indicated by the Divine guidance of history. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik seems to adopt a similar approach (see Nefesh HaRav p.88 footnote 29; also see Nefesh HaRav p.53 footnote 26), arguing that Hashem’s Will is discernible by the direction of history.

The second classic case is the Smag (positive Mitzvot 22) who supports the common practice to wear Tefillin whose Parshiot are arranged in accordance with Rashi’s view, from an ancient set of Tefillin that were found buried in the area of the grave of the prophet Yechezkel. The Drisha (Orach Chaim 34) responds that this find does not necessarily disprove the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, as it possible that these Tefillin were buried precisely because they were invalid! The Bach (ad. loc.) responds, though, that improper ordering of the Tefillin does not warrant burial as the Parshiot simply could have been placed in proper order.

Nonetheless, one could respond to the Smag’s argument by noting that it is difficult to draw conclusions from one artifact. Indeed, it is entirely possible that in other digs, Tefillin whose Parshiot are arranged in accordance with the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam will be found. In fact, I have heard that it indeed is true that sets of Tefillin with Parshiot arranged in accordance with both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam’s opposing views have been found in archaeological excavations conducted in the twentieth century.

Incidentally, one should not be surprised by the discovery that the Rashi-Rabbeinu Tam debate raged already in earlier generations. The Gemara frequently mentions that the Amoraim engaged in debates that were already debated by the Tannaim in earlier generations. I encountered this experience in the late 1980’s when I became involved in Eruv design and construction. I learned that Rabbanim in America debated whether the positioning of a Lechi beneath a wire should be determined by plumb line or by eyesight alone (see my Gray Matter pp.182-184). I thought that I could resolve this debate simply by asking the older Rabbanim what the practice was in pre-war Europe. To my surprise, I discovered that the same difference of opinion existed in pre-war Europe and had reemerged in the 1980’s when Jews began building community Eruvin in America (I also discovered that the same difference of opinion existed in Israel).

The third classic case of discovery of ancient artifacts is recorded in the Torat Chaim edition of the Ramban’s commentary to Shemot 30:13. The Ramban discusses the debate between Rashi and the Rif regarding the weight of a Shekel (this impacts a number of areas of Halacha, such as determining the minimum weight of the coins used for Pidyon HaBen). According to Rashi’s opinion, the Shekel would be one-sixth lighter than according to the Rif’s opinion. The Ramban originally supported the opinion of the Rif. However, the Ramban writes that when he made Aliyah he was shown an ancient coin that said Shekel Hashkalim on one side and Yerushalayim Hakedoshah on the other. When he weighed the ancient Shekel he realized that Rashi’s opinion was correct. The Ramban subsequently reversed his opinion and supported Rashi based on his discovery of the ancient artifact. It should be noted that in later generations many coins of the type that the Ramban found were discovered in various places throughout Eretz Yisrael and scholars have dated them to the period of the last years of the Second Temple.

Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 305:1) does not rule in accordance with the opinion of Rashi despite the discovery made by the Ramban. The reason for this might be based on two criticisms of the Ramban’s evaluation of his discovery. First, as the Abarbanel notes (Shemot 30:13-14), it is entirely possible that the Shekel lost some of its weight over time. Second, the Tashbetz (3:226) is disturbed that the Ramban relied on Samaritans to decipher the writing on the coin. Since we have profound ideological differences with the Samaritans, their testimony has no Halachic credibility. These two criticisms of the Ramban’s approach foreshadow the fundamental concerns with the reliability of ancient finds that Rabbanim express today – the integrity of the discoveries and the credibility of the archaeologists, many of whom appear to be hostile to Torah values.

Modern Archaeology and its Limitations

These three classic cases deal with fairly concrete artifacts. However, the issues raised by modern archaeology are often much more nuanced and abstract. For example, archaeologists might identify human bones as belonging to the early Canaanite period (before Avraham Avinu’s arrival and hence not of Jewish origin) based on the fact that they are found on the same stratum as pottery that has been determined by scientific testing to belong to that time period. Does Halacha permit relying on such assertions made by professional archaeologists? To answer this question we will briefly explore the advances and limitations of modern archaeology.

The study of archaeology has advanced very significantly in the past hundred years. Each succeeding generation has introduced new methodologies for more accurate exploration and assessment of the past. Today, computers and science are standard tools in archaeologists’ ever-expanding arsenal of exploratory techniques. Archaeology is often questioning and challenging its own findings as it develops as a field. In discussions with Mr. Pickman, it became clear that archaeology as a discipline is constantly evolving. Since the early 1900’s, each succeeding generation identified the limitations of the previous methodology and techniques employed. Even current techniques will most likely be viewed as somewhat antiquated in as little as twenty years, as progressive technology makes available new tools in the archaeologist’s arsenal for the processing and analysis of artifacts. Accordingly, while we may admire the achievements of archaeologists, we must at the same time be aware of and recognize the limitations regarding their conclusions.

There are other significant limitations that we must bear in mind when assessing the value of archaeological findings. First is that there is an inherent limitation in the survival of most artifacts due to deterioration that occurs over time in the item from use and exposure to the environment. Organic items such as food, papyrus and animal skins do not survive for long periods of time. Even metal and stone objects often do not survive in their original form (as we noted earlier). Most items were meant to be used – they were not created with the idea that they would endure forever, and as such, only a small percentage of the entire corpus of material actually survives. Second, only tiny percentages of areas of interest have been excavated. The reasons for this include cost and the wish to allow future archaeologists to test their theories and methodologies for a site. Hence, it is wrong to draw broad conclusions based on documents or artifacts that have not been found in archaeological excavations. Third, ancient histories that have been unearthed often include bald lies and exaggerations. Ancient kings would often employ individuals to record history in a manner that would be most flattering to the king rather than in the most objective manner. Fourth, an integral component of archaeological studies is the interpretation of the materials that have been unearthed. Interpretation is by definition subjective, and the archaeologist’s political or religious beliefs often color and bias his theories and conclusions.

Thus, one must employ archaeology in the service of Torah in a very selective and critical manner. For example, a non-Orthodox spiritual leader stirred a great deal of controversy a number of years ago when he stated in a sermon that Yetziat Mitzrayim never occurred, in light of the fact that no archaeological evidence has been found to prove that it happened. Besides the theological problems with this statement, his pronouncement reflects a naïve understanding and evaluation of the field of archaeology.

Another example is the conclusion that some archaeologists reached that the battle of Ai that is described in the book of Joshua did not occur because the excavations at Ai showed that Ai was not inhabited during the time of Joshua’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael. However, Rav Yoel Bin Nun (arguably the greatest living scholar of Tanach) demonstrated that they had excavated the wrong area. Instead he found what he believed to be the correct location of Ai, which, when subsequently excavated, yielded evidence that it existed during the time of Joshua’s entry into Eretz Yisrael.

Twentieth-Century Evaluations – Chazon Ish vs. Rav Kook

Two of the greatest authorities of the first half of the twentieth century expressed their evaluation of archaeological enterprise. The Chazon Ish (a major leader of Chareidi Orthodoxy who lived from 1878-1953 and moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1933 ) dealt with the question of whether the laws of Shemittah apply to produce grown in the city of Beit She’an. The Gemara (Chullin 6b) records that Shemittah restrictions do not apply to produce grown in Beit She’an. The question is whether we may assume that what we today identify as Beit She’an is the Beit She’an that is mentioned in the Gemara. The Chazon Ish (Shevi’it 3:18-19) rules unequivocally that we may not assume that it is the same Beit She’an. He believes that the practice of identifying places in Israel with their Biblical and Talmudic namesakes is built on mere “Umdenot” (conjecture), which is insufficient evidence to be used for Halachic purposes.

In his letters (Collected Letters of the Chazon Ish 2:22 and 3:19) the Chazon Ish reveals his fundamental attitude towards archaeology. He writes, “I am not acquainted with the endeavor of excavations and studies of antiquities, and I oppose this enterprise because of the many uncertainties involved.” The Chazon Ish seems to reject the fundamental value of investigating the past by searching for artifacts. It appears that the Chazon Ish believes that it is not worth paying any attention to archaeology because anything that we need to know about our past has been preserved throughout the generations. Anything that has not been preserved seems to have not been worth preserving, in the Chazon Ish’s view.

I assume this to be the Chazon Ish’s approach based on his attitude towards the discovery of previously unknown manuscripts of early Halachic authorities. The Chazon Ish is famous for rejecting the attachment of any Halachic significance attached to these newly discovered manuscripts. He reasons that Hashem allowed only those manuscripts that were worth preserving to be transmitted from generation to generation without interruption. If the transmission of a manuscript was interrupted, it means that Hashem did not want this manuscript to be part of the Mesorah and Halachic process. It should be noted, though, that not all authorities subscribe to the Chazon Ish’s view on this matter. For example, Rav Ovadia Yosef quite often relies upon recently discovered manuscripts in the process of issuing a Halachic ruling. For further discussion of this issue, see Rav Moshe Bleich’s essay “The Role of Manuscripts in Halachic Decision Making,” Tradition 27:2:22-55.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (a leading role model for serious Modern Orthodox Jews who lived from 1865-1935) adopted a similar yet fundamentally different approach to this issue. Rav Kook addresses this issue in a brief yet illuminating responsum to Rav Yechiel Michal Tukachisky (one of leading luminaries of twentieth-century Jerusalem). The specific issue he treats is whether the Megillah should be read on the fifteenth of Adar based on contemporary scholarship’s conclusion that a particular locale was surrounded by a wall in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. Rav Kook writes (Iggerot HaReiyah 423):

Regarding the issue of establishing the reading of the Megillah in a certain locale on the fifteenth of Adar, I do not find that the evidence you have sent me is sufficient to establish these places as having been surrounded by walls during the period of Joshua. The evidence does not even rise to the level of doubt since it must overcome the Rambam’s observation that the Rov (majority) of cities of the world were not surrounded by walls during the time of Joshua. This entire enterprise of “Eretz Yisrael scholarship” is filled with guesswork. Although this endeavor is worthy of respect and warm admiration for the scholars involved in this study, due to our love of holy Torah matters, nonetheless, one cannot make Halachic decisions based on the Arab names of a specific area. Nevertheless, if you have any fundamentally different proofs or sources, kindly inform me of them and Bli Neder I will express my views on this matter.

Although Rav Kook shares much of the Chazon Ish’s skepticism regarding the field of academic Eretz Yisrael studies, he nevertheless seems to have a fundamentally different evaluation of the entire enterprise. First, he expresses positive thoughts about archaeological endeavors in general. Second, Rav Kook keeps an open mind about this matter and is willing to consider more conclusive evidence. The only specific tool he rejects is the use of Arab names for an area. See Rav Kook’s Iggerot HaReiyah 574, where he expresses a similar approach (a positive, yet skeptical, yet open attitude) regarding the question of the use of ancient coins found in digs to make Halachic rulings. Rav Kook also expresses an open yet critical attitude to archaeology in Iggerot HaReiyah 91.

Parenthetically, the use of Arab names is a major tool used by scholars to identify the sites of places mentioned in the Tanach and the Gemara. For example, the Arab village of Beit Jallah is identified with the Biblical city Giloh (the residence of the biblical Achitophel). The Arab village of El-Ram is identified as Ramah of the Tanach (the residence of Shmuel HaNavi).


The fundamental question of whether Halacha considers the discovery of ancient artifacts is a matter of dispute that began in the time of the Rishonim. Two giants of the twentieth century, the Chazon Ish and Rav Kook, seem to debate this point as well. Next week we will apply the principles we outlined in this essay to the practical issues that we mentioned in the beginning of this essay. We shall seek to demonstrate that the fundamental dispute between the Chazon Ish and Rav Kook still rages today.




This article is taken with permission from Kol Torah, a publication of the Torah Academy of Bergen County

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